A speech that will be ‘remembered for a long, long time’
Lisa Macuja Elizalde, the country’s most famous ballerina, addressed the graduating students of the School of Humanities and the John Gokongwei School of Management of the Ateneo de Manila University on Saturday with a speech that drew raves from graduates and teachers immediately after the commencement rites and then quickly circulated by word of mouth and on social media.
It was a classic commencement speech, meeting all the needs that that form is expected to meet: It made an immediate connection with the graduating class, paid tribute to the institution the students were graduating from, teased the institution’s self-image with a well-chosen punchline, drew deep from the speaker’s personal experience, then extracted lessons from that experience for the benefit of the audience.
Many in that audience found the speech “inspiring” or “wonderful” or “moving,” and the speaker’s manner of delivery “poised,” “graceful.” Dr. Remmon Barbaza, acting Dean of the School of Humanities, called the speech one of the most memorable he had ever heard. On Facebook, he wrote: “It will surely be remembered for a long, long time.” JN
The full text of the speech follows:
You cannot imagine how great an honor it is for me to speak before you today. And that is certainly not a cliché or an exaggeration. Few people would ever guess that despite the many blessings I’ve received in over 30 years as a ballerina, most of my young life was spent pining for something that you all have and I don’t—a diploma from the Ateneo de Manila University.
You see, I come from a certified Blue Eagle family. My father, his brother and my siblings all graduated from the Ateneo, with all four men in my family in the Honors Class since their elementary grades. Although I married a magna cum laude from Harvard. (Sorry, my husband made sure that I stuck that in there somewhere.)
When I was seventeen, fresh out of high school, I found myself standing at a crossroad in my life: I was accepted in both the Ateneo and UP for college.
But I decided to go to Russia instead and pursue my dream of becoming a ballerina in the toughest ballet school in the world, as a cultural scholar of the former Soviet Union.
Given this opportunity, the diploma would have to wait. I struck a deal with my parents—I gave myself two years to devote to dancing, which was my first love. If it didn’t work out, I promised I would go back to school and become an accountant, which was what my grandparents wanted me to be.
That was the first big deadline I’ve ever set for myself.
When I told my parents I wanted to study ballet in Russia instead of enrolling in college like everyone else, my father’s reaction was: “What? So you will become a dancer and just learn to count to eight for the rest of your life?” My mom, on the other hand, was very supportive. She herself wanted to become a ballerina but was forced to stop when a ban in the 1950s prohibited girls from Catholic schools to dance ballet. My grandparents? Well, they still wanted me to become an accountant.
My dad probably thought I would find life in Russia so hard that I would hurry back home anyway, so finally, he relented. I left right after my 18th birthday and was assigned to the 7th year level of the Russian Ballet Academy in St Petersburg. It was 1982 and the first snow had just fallen when our plane touched down in what was then a bastion of communism.
In a way, my father was right. That first year in Russia was indeed the hardest year of my life. It was a life that was filled with change and adaptation—new culture, new language, new dogmas, a new method of ballet training, new weather conditions… Then eventually, I had to make new friends and satisfy new mentors. Beginnings are difficult.
But I stayed. Sometimes being stubborn has its rewards. There were many days in those cold ballet studios in the dead of winter when my body was ready to collapse from sheer exhaustion and it was just my stubborn will that pushed me to continue doing those drills again and again, day in and day out. Even in the many nights when I cried myself to sleep from homesickness or from the soreness of an injury, the pain was gently but obstinately pushed aside the minute I focused on my dream – the dream of becoming not just a ballerina but the best ballerina I could ever become. I substituted the occasional feelings of helplessness and anxiety with visions of achieving that dream. This—plus an attitude of gratitude, an overwhelming sense of appreciation for being exactly where I was and the miracle of how I even got there.
Despite the many sacrifices, my being in Russia was a great blessing and I survived by putting all my energy in practicing, learning and following directions as I was being mentored in the very difficult Russian Vaganova system of classical ballet training. I was like a horse with blinders. Nothing else mattered but my art. The discipline first shaped my mind and spirit—then my body eventually followed. Not only did I stay to finish the two years of ballet training, I stayed on for two more, this time as the first foreigner to be invited as an artist of the 250-year-old Kirov Ballet.
This is where that crossroad of my life has brought me. The journey was challenging but it was well worth it because I pursued a path that brought me closer to my heart’s calling. And when your heart speaks to you, you can never go wrong because it never lies. And it will push you to go forward and excel because at a certain point, your dream becomes like oxygen. You need it to breathe. You need it to grow. You need it to live.
However, in today’s world, the standards of success have become a bit more complicated. You can’t just drill; you need to create. You can’t just learn; you need to innovate. You can’t just follow; you need to lead.
Today, you find yourself in that same crucial intersection in life that I myself crossed many years ago. What can I tell you now that will make your next steps easier, if not more meaningful?
My father was right in saying that ballet dancers are drilled to count to eight. It is in these classic eight counts that a segment of movement is born. Then we start all over again with one. From this repetitive drill, choreography is born. So they actually serve as building blocks for creating something new and creative.
In this fashion, allow me to share with you my own “eight counts” which I hope would serve as helpful references as you find your own rhythm and direction in life:
Decide and commit to something that you are passionate about. The earlier you do this, the better. Make a decision not just on what you want to do and what you want to achieve in the next few years, but try to picture where you want to be 20 years from now. This was something my father taught me. He was a very wise and logical man. After all, he was an Atenean right? When I was 15, he made me write a list of what I wanted to be and should have done by the age of 35. I came up with the following: to get a degree from the Ateneo and become a teacher; to dance all the classical ballerina roles at least once in my career; to own and operate my own ballet school; to have my own family and be a mom. I committed myself to these long-term goals alongside my short term ones and looking back, I seem to have done everything before I reached 35 – except for the first one. But wait, since I am a ballet teacher, I guess it’s just a matter of getting a diploma then. Hmmm…
No pain, no gain. I cannot overemphasize this point. Nothing can take the place of hard work – not even talent. As they say, hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard. When my own daughter told me she wanted to become a ballerina, a part of me was excited for her and pleased that I could help her to achieve her dream. But part of me was also screaming NOOOOO because I wanted to protect her from all the blood, sweat, and tears that she would have to go through in order to achieve her dreams. In the end, she pursued her intention and now I know how my parents felt back then—extremely proud!
Whatever your goal, get good at it! Whatever it is you are passionate about, you need to keep at it and practice. Repeat. Practice. Repeat. While you are practicing and repeating, don’t forget the “and” count — the “one-and-a-two-and-a-three” connecting counts that link together connecting steps in ballet. Bear in mind that there are also connecting points in life that are just as important as its highs and lows. These are the periods of rest, recreation, and stillness. These in-between moments are just as important because they give you a chance to breathe, to balance and to center. So keep on practicing – but take vacations too. Keep your focus… but remember it’s the linking “ands” that keep you connected.
Honor your emotions and acknowledge your fears. It’s okay to be nervous, to feel anxious or to have stage fright. That means you care and that you want to excel. After three decades of dancing, I still gag before going onstage! That’s why I make sure to fast before every performance. Seriously, it’s when you stop feeling nervous that you should start to worry because that means you are becoming apathetic towards what you are doing. And that’s a scary place to be in. Your emotions are a part of who you are. Being emotional doesn’t mean you’re weak. Whether you need to deal with pressure, loss, failure, hurt or rejection, our emotions are not a baggage. Instead, they make us human. They make us whole. So cry, laugh, smile, scream… it’s okay!
For a performing artist, the performance is the product and thus, the most important part of your work. All the classes, rehearsals, warm-ups and preparation culminate into that one performance. That is what the audience sees and that is what they will take away with them. Treat every time you get to practice your profession as a performance. Don’t save your best effort for another day. Always give 100% so you never have to regret anything. But BE PREPARED. You know in jumping, the deeper you do this step called a “plié” which means to bend (in this case your knees) the higher you are able to propel yourself into the air. The plié is your preparation. The soaring into the air is the goal. The more prepared you are, whether for a presentation, a task or a performance, usually, the outcome is also better. Take this moment now to thank your parents, teachers, mentors, administrators, family, colleagues, your Manongs and Manangs and your friends. For they all helped out to prepare you well. And they will continue to support you in the years to come. Believe me, you will need their support.
Do something crazy. Do something that defies all logic at least once in your life. You never know what could happen from there. I once found myself in Cuba and was asked to dance the full-length Swan Lake. Now you have to know something about Swan Lake—it has the most difficult ballerina role ever. In fact, in Russia, I was warned by my own teacher—who I loved and respected and trusted—that I should never do the roles of Odette/Odile. It’s true. She told me when I graduated that I was already equipped to dance any role out there—except Odette/Odile. “Because Lisa, you will never be a Swan Queen,” she said frankly but with every good intention. Well, my “something crazy” happened twice in my life. First, I accepted the challenge of performing Swan Lake in Cuba with only FOUR DAYS to learn and rehearse it. And I performed what was for me the WORST Swan Lake I have ever done in my career! Honestly, I still cringe when I watch the video. But I did it. No regrets. My second crazy moment was when I resigned from my former company, where I was principal dancer, and formed Ballet Manila in 1995 with 11 other young dancers. No money, no connections, just a lot of drive and dreams to begin with. Well, the company just celebrated its 20th anniversary last month with five times the number of dancers, plus a school and a scholarship foundation that promises a steady supply of well-trained ballet dancers to continue our mission of bringing ballet to the people and people to the ballet in the many years to come! Sometimes closing your eyes and taking that leap of faith will get you there—even if it makes you pass through a lot of heartaches and failure along the way.
This one is a quote I saw on social media but which I felt was truly valid and real: “One of the hardest decisions you’ll ever face in life is choosing whether to walk away or try harder.” This is where setting a deadline for yourself is most important. I gave myself two years to become a ballerina, although honestly I do not know what I would have done if it didn’t work out. (You see I hate accounting. Working with numbers was never my forte—unless of course it involves counting to 8).
So push yourself through self-doubts, for they will certainly come. Push yourself through rejection. But also know when it’s time to re-direct. Re-boot. And then decide and commit all over again.
EIGHTH OR LASTLY …
Serve. Offer yourself to a cause bigger than your own needs or ambition. Find ways to make your dreams meaningful to others as well. One thing that I’ve learned from my family of Blue Eagles is that an Atenean means being a “man or woman for others.” You need to serve. Serve your whole life. Serve yourself sometimes. But serve others more often.
I met many of you during two separate visits to the Ateneo that have prepared me for today’s commencement speech. With today’s visit, I must say I haven’t been this often to Ateneo since I was in high school coming to watch Dulaang Sibol.
So what are my eight counts again?
Decide and commit
Focus and get good
Honor your emotions
Take the leap
Fly high Blue Eagle graduates! This is your time to soar!
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